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Healing Through Trunk-Or-Treating: Halloween In Short Creek

Photo of kids in costume.
Courtesy: Terrill Musser
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Kids participating in trunk-or-treat in Hildale.

Outside Water Canyon Elementary School in Hildale, Utah, children are dressed up in costumes and scurrying from car to car in the parking lot asking politely for candy.

The trunk-or-treat scene is common for any Utahn, but the fact that it’s happening here in Hildale would have been unthinkable just a few years ago.

Hildale and its sister town Colorado City across the Utah-Arizona border, make up the community known as Short Creek. It’s breathtakingly beautiful, nestled up against craggy red rocks, like those in the nearby national parks.

For a long time this has been the epicenter of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, or FLDS, the polygamist group led by Warren Jeffs, who is currently serving a life sentence in a Texas prison.

But things in Short Creek are changing.

Over the past four years or so this community — now primarily those who have left the FLDS church — has gradually started celebrating Halloween for the first time. The holiday was seen as taboo and strictly forbidden by those in the faith.

The event, which serves as a fundraiser for the PTA, was organized by Roxanne Barlow, who says her goal was simple. She wanted the night to feel normal.

Photo of kids at bounce house.
Credit Lee Hale / KUER
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There are bounce houses and a PA system blaring the Cha Cha Slide. Kids are ‘flossing’ — the dance move, not the dental hygiene practice.

It’s the kind of stuff happening at neighborhood Halloween parties basically anywhere.

“20 years ago would be completely unthinkable. You wouldn’t even be able to imagine something like this,” Claudelle Hammon said.

Hammon fled the FLDS community back in the 1980s. Her daughter, Arya, is also here, but she’s “on the job” she says.

A junior at the local Water Canyon High School, Arya, 16, was working on her first story as an intern reporter for a small local newspaper, the Canaan Mountain Herald, which is attempting to reboot.

Arya wants her story to be “light-hearted.” She said she’s tired of the usual stories that come out of Hildale and Colorado City, stories of sexual abuse, food stamp fraud, the photos of women in their pastel dresses, which are less visible these days.

“It’s been really hard for us to get away from that story,” Arya says. “It is our story but at the same time we are just people and we’re just trying to celebrate Halloween. Not everything is about Warren Jeffs.”

Clinton Barlow agrees with Arya and he’s optimistic.

“We are getting past our past,” Barlow says.

Barlow, who is dressed in a giant pickle costume, walked away from the FLDS community in 2011 when he says very few people were standing up to church leaders.

Barlow says he decided to stay here even though it was painful to live among those who ostracized him. He stayed because he saw the potential for events like the one happening that night. His word for it is “magic.”

“The magic is the kids experiencing Halloween for the first time,” Barlow says. “Taking that little bag of candy and getting it filled clear to the brim.”

Photo of trunk or treat in Hilldale.
Credit Lee Hale / KUER
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There’s something else in the air here too which is difficult to describe. Because everyone in Short Creek has experienced nearly the same pain, the same crisis of faith and heartache — there’s this palpable bond.

“We have a sense without words that we know where they come from,” Barlow says. “This community is in heal-mode right now.”

Barlow says this — what’s happening at the trunk-or-treat — is what healing looks like. It’s children in costumes and prizes for secret chili recipes. It’s dancing to the same — slightly obnoxious — songs everyone else is dancing too.

For a community all too familiar with media scrutiny and outside intrigue, this feeling of normalcy is a welcome relief.

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